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The Awful German Language by Mark Twain read online

Mark Twain. The Awful German Language

A little learning makes the whole world kin.
Proverbs XXXII, 7

I went often to look at the collection of curiosities in Heidelberg
Castle, and one day I surprised the keeper of it with my German. I spoke
entirely in that language. He was greatly interested; and after I had talked
a while he said my German was very rare, possibly a “unique”; and wanted to
add it to his museum.
If he had known what it had cost me to acquire my art, he would also
have known that it would break any collector to buy it. Harris and I had
been hard at work on our German during several weeks at that time, and
although we had made good progress, it had been accomplished under great
difficulty and annoyance, for three of our teachers had died in the mean
time. A person who has not studied German can form no idea of what a
perplexing language it is.
Surely there is not another language that is so slipshod and
systemless, and so slippery and elusive to the grasp. One is washed about in
it, hither and thither, in the most helpless way; and when at last he thinks
he has captured a rule which offers firm ground to take a rest on amid the
general rage and turmoil of the ten parts of speech, he turns over the page
and reads, “Let the pupil make careful note of the following EXCEPTIONS.” He
runs his eye down and finds that there are more exceptions to the rule than
instances of it. So overboard he goes again, to hunt for another Ararat and
find another quicksand. Such has been, and continues to be, my experience.
Every time I think I have got one of these four confusing “cases” where I am
master of it, a seemingly insignificant preposition intrudes itself into my
sentence, clothed with an awful and unsuspected power, and crumbles the
ground from under me. For instance, my book inquires after a certain bird —
(it is always inquiring after things which are of no sort of no consequence
to anybody): “Where is the bird?” Now the answer to this question —
according to the book — is that the bird is waiting in the blacksmith shop
on account of the rain. Of course no bird would do that, but then you must
stick to the book. Very well, I begin to cipher out the German for that
answer. I begin at the wrong end, necessarily, for that is the German idea.
I say to myself, “REGEN (rain) is masculine — or maybe it is feminine — or
possibly neuter — it is too much trouble to look now. Therefore, it is
either DER (the) Regen, or DIE (the) Regen, or DAS (the) Regen, according to
which gender it may turn out to be when I look. In the interest of science,
I will cipher it out on the hypothesis that it is masculine. Very well —
then THE rain is DER Regen, if it is simply in the quiescent state of being
MENTIONED, without enlargement or discussion — Nominative case; but if this
rain is lying around, in a kind of a general way on the ground, it is then
definitely located, it is DOING SOMETHING — that is, RESTING (which is one
of the German grammar’s ideas of doing something), and this throws the rain
into the Dative case, and makes it DEM Regen. However, this rain is not
resting, but is doing something ACTIVELY, — it is falling — to interfere
with the bird, likely — and this indicates MOVEMENT, which has the effect
of sliding it into the Accusative case and changing DEM Regen into DEN
Regen.” Having completed the grammatical horoscope of this matter, I answer
up confidently and state in German that the bird is staying in the
blacksmith shop “wegen (on account of) DEN Regen.” Then the teacher lets me
softly down with the remark that whenever the word “wegen” drops into a
sentence, it ALWAYS throws that subject into the GENITIVE case, regardless
of consequences — and therefore this bird stayed in the blacksmith shop
“wegen DES Regens.”
N.B. — I was informed, later, by a higher authority, that there was an
“exception” which permits one to say “wegen DEN Regen” in certain peculiar
and complex circumstances, but that this exception is not extended to
anything BUT rain.
There are ten parts of speech, and they are all troublesome. An average
sentence, in a German newspaper, is a sublime and impressive curiosity; it
occupies a quarter of a column; it contains all the ten parts of speech —
not in regular order, but mixed; it is built mainly of compound words
constructed by the writer on the spot, and not to be found in any dictionary
— six or seven words compacted into one, without joint or seam — that is,
without hyphens; it treats of fourteen or fifteen different subjects, each
enclosed in a parenthesis of its own, with here and there extra parentheses,
making pens with pens: finally, all the parentheses and reparentheses are
massed together between a couple of king-parentheses, one of which is placed
in the first line of the majestic sentence and the other in the middle of
the last line of it — AFTER WHICH COMES THE VERB, and you find out for the
first time what the man has been talking about; and after the verb — merely
by way of ornament, as far as I can make out — the writer shovels in “HABEN
SIND GEWESEN GEHABT HAVEN GEWORDEN SEIN,” or words to that effect, and the
monument is finished. I suppose that this closing hurrah is in the nature of
the flourish to a man’s signature — not necessary, but pretty. German books
are easy enough to read when you hold them before the looking-glass or stand
on your head — so as to reverse the construction — but I think that to
learn to read and understand a German newspaper is a thing which must always
remain an impossibility to a foreigner.
Yet even the German books are not entirely free from attacks of the
Parenthesis distemper — though they are usually so mild as to cover only a
few lines, and therefore when you at last get down to the verb it carries
some meaning to your mind because you are able to remember a good deal of
what has gone before. Now here is a sentence from a popular and excellent
German novel — which a slight parenthesis in it. I will make a perfectly
literal translation, and throw in the parenthesis-marks and some hyphens for
the assistance of the reader — though in the original there are no
parenthesis-marks or hyphens, and the reader is left to flounder through to
the remote verb the best way he can:
“But when he, upon the street, the (in-satin-and-silk-covered-
now-very-unconstrained-after-the-newest-fashioned-dressed) government
counselor’s wife MET,” etc., etc. [1]1. Wenn er aber auf der Strasse der in Sammt und Seide gehuellten jetz
sehr ungenirt nach der neusten mode gekleideten Regierungsrathin begegnet.
That is from THE OLD MAMSELLE’S SECRET, by Mrs. Marlitt. And that
sentence is constructed upon the most approved German model. You observe how
far that verb is from the reader’s base of operations; well, in a German
newspaper they put their verb away over on the next page; and I have heard
that sometimes after stringing along the exciting preliminaries and
parentheses for a column or two, they get in a hurry and have to go to press
without getting to the verb at all. Of course, then, the reader is left in a
very exhausted and ignorant state.
We have the Parenthesis disease in our literature, too; and one may see
cases of it every day in our books and newspapers: but with us it is the
mark and sign of an unpracticed writer or a cloudy intellect, whereas with
the Germans it is doubtless the mark and sign of a practiced pen and of the
presence of that sort of luminous intellectual fog which stands for
clearness among these people. For surely it is NOT clearness — it
necessarily can’t be clearness. Even a jury would have penetration enough to
discover that. A writer’s ideas must be a good deal confused, a good deal
out of line and sequence, when he starts out to say that a man met a
counselor’s wife in the street, and then right in the midst of this so
simple undertaking halts these approaching people and makes them stand still
until he jots down an inventory of the woman’s dress. That is manifestly
absurd. It reminds a person of those dentists who secure your instant and
breathless interest in a tooth by taking a grip on it with the forceps, and
then stand there and drawl through a tedious anecdote before they give the
dreaded jerk. Parentheses in literature and dentistry are in bad taste.
The Germans have another kind of parenthesis, which they make by
splitting a verb in two and putting half of it at the beginning of an
exciting chapter and the OTHER HALF at the end of it. Can any one conceive
of anything more confusing than that? These things are called “separable
verbs.” The German grammar is blistered all over with separable verbs; and
the wider the two portions of one of them are spread apart, the better the
author of the crime is pleased with his performance. A favorite one is
REISTE AB — which means departed. Here is an example which I culled from a
novel and reduced to English:
“The trunks being now ready, he DE- after kissing his mother and
sisters, and once more pressing to his bosom his adored Gretchen, who,
dressed in simple white muslin, with a single tuberose in the ample folds of
her rich brown hair, had tottered feebly down the stairs, still pale from
the terror and excitement of the past evening, but longing to lay her poor
aching head yet once again upon the breast of him whom she loved more dearly
than life itself, PARTED.”
However, it is not well to dwell too much on the separable verbs. One
is sure to lose his temper early; and if he sticks to the subject, and will
not be warned, it will at last either soften his brain or petrify it.
Personal pronouns and adjectives are a fruitful nuisance in this language,
and should have been left out. For instance, the same sound, SIE, means YOU,
and it means SHE, and it means HER, and it means IT, and it means THEY, and
it means THEM. Think of the ragged poverty of a language which has to make
one word do the work of six — and a poor little weak thing of only three
letters at that. But mainly, think of the exasperation of never knowing
which of these meanings the speaker is trying to convey. This explains why,
whenever a person says SIE to me, I generally try to kill him, if a
Now observe the Adjective. Here was a case where simplicity would have
been an advantage; therefore, for no other reason, the inventor of this
language complicated it all he could. When we wish to speak of our “good
friend or friends,” in our enlightened tongue, we stick to the one form and
have no trouble or hard feeling about it; but with the German tongue it is
different. When a German gets his hands on an adjective, he declines it, and
keeps on declining it until the common sense is all declined out of it. It
is as bad as Latin. He says, for instance:
Nominative — Mein gutER Freund, my good friend.
Genitives — MeinES GutEN FreundES, of my good friend.
Dative — MeinEM gutEN Freund, to my good friend.
Accusative — MeinEN gutEN Freund, my good friend.

N. — MeinE gutEN FreundE, my good friends.
G. — MeinER gutEN FreundE, of my good friends.
D. — MeinEN gutEN FreundEN, to my good friends.
A. — MeinE gutEN FreundE, my good friends.
Now let the candidate for the asylum try to memorize those variations,
and see how soon he will be elected. One might better go without friends in
Germany than take all this trouble about them. I have shown what a bother it
is to decline a good (male) friend; well this is only a third of the work,
for there is a variety of new distortions of the adjective to be learned
when the object is feminine, and still another when the object is neuter.
Now there are more adjectives in this language than there are black cats in
Switzerland, and they must all be as elaborately declined as the examples
above suggested. Difficult? — troublesome? — these words cannot describe
it. I heard a Californian student in Heidelberg say, in one of his calmest
moods, that he would rather decline two drinks than one German adjective.
The inventor of the language seems to have taken pleasure in
complicating it in every way he could think of. For instance, if one is
casually referring to a house, HAUS, or a horse, PFERD, or a dog, HUND, he
spells these words as I have indicated; but if he is referring to them in
the Dative case, he sticks on a foolish and unnecessary E and spells them
HAUSE, PFERDE, HUNDE. So, as an added E often signifies the plural, as the S
does with us, the new student is likely to go on for a month making twins
out of a Dative dog before he discovers his mistake; and on the other hand,
many a new student who could ill afford loss, has bought and paid for two
dogs and only got one of them, because he ignorantly bought that dog in the
Dative singular when he really supposed he was talking plural — which left
the law on the seller’s side, of course, by the strict rules of grammar, and
therefore a suit for recovery could not lie.
In German, all the Nouns begin with a capital letter. Now that is a
good idea; and a good idea, in this language, is necessarily conspicuous
from its lonesomeness. I consider this capitalizing of nouns a good idea,
because by reason of it you are almost always able to tell a noun the minute
you see it. You fall into error occasionally, because you mistake the name
of a person for the name of a thing, and waste a good deal of time trying to
dig a meaning out of it. German names almost always do mean something, and
this helps to deceive the student. I translated a passage one day, which
said that “the infuriated tigress broke loose and utterly ate up the
unfortunate fir forest” (Tannenwald). When I was girding up my loins to
doubt this, I found out that Tannenwald in this instance was a man’s name.
Every noun has a gender, and there is no sense or system in the
distribution; so the gender of each must be learned separately and by heart.
There is no other way. To do this one has to have a memory like a
memorandum-book. In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has.
Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous
disrespect for the girl. See how it looks in print — I translate this from
a conversation in one of the best of the German Sunday-school books:
“Gretchen. Wilhelm, where is the turnip?
“Wilhelm. She has gone to the kitchen.”
“Gretchen. Where is the accomplished and beautiful English maiden?”
“Wilhelm. It has gone to the opera.”
To continue with the German genders: a tree is male, its buds are
female, its leaves are neuter; horses are sexless, dogs are male, cats are
female — tomcats included, of course; a person’s mouth, neck, bosom,
elbows, fingers, nails, feet, and body are of the male sex, and his head is
male or neuter according to the word selected to signify it, and NOT
according to the sex of the individual who wears it — for in Germany all
the women either male heads or sexless ones; a person’s nose, lips,
shoulders, breast, hands, and toes are of the female sex; and his hair,
ears, eyes, chin, legs, knees, heart, and conscience haven’t any sex at all.
The inventor of the language probably got what he knew about a conscience
from hearsay.
Now, by the above dissection, the reader will see that in Germany a man
may THINK he is a man, but when he comes to look into the matter closely, he
is bound to have his doubts; he finds that in sober truth he is a most
ridiculous mixture; and if he ends by trying to comfort himself with the
thought that he can at least depend on a third of this mess as being manly
and masculine, the humiliating second thought will quickly remind him that
in this respect he is no better off than any woman or cow in the land.
In the German it is true that by some oversight of the inventor of the
language, a Woman is a female; but a Wife (Weib) is not — which is
unfortunate. A Wife, here, has no sex; she is neuter; so, according to the
grammar, a fish is HE, his scales are SHE, but a fishwife is neither. To
describe a wife as sexless may be called under-description; that is bad
enough, but over-description is surely worse. A German speaks of an
Englishman as the ENGLAENDER; to change the sex, he adds INN, and that
stands for Englishwoman — ENGLAENDERINN. That seems descriptive enough, but
still it is not exact enough for a German; so he precedes the word with that
article which indicates that the creature to follow is feminine, and writes
it down thus: “die Englaenderinn,” — which means “the she-Englishwoman.” I
consider that that person is over-described.
Well, after the student has learned the sex of a great number of nouns,
he is still in a difficulty, because he finds it impossible to persuade his
tongue to refer to things as “he” and “she,” and “him” and “her,” which it
has been always accustomed to refer to it as “it.” When he even frames a
German sentence in his mind, with the hims and hers in the right places, and
then works up his courage to the utterance-point, it is no use — the moment
he begins to speak his tongue files the track and all those labored males
and females come out as “its.” And even when he is reading German to
himself, he always calls those things “it,” where as he ought to read in
this way:
TALE OF THE FISHWIFE AND ITS SAD FATE [2]2. I capitalize the nouns, in the German (and ancient English) fashion.
It is a bleak Day. Hear the Rain, how he pours, and the Hail, how he
rattles; and see the Snow, how he drifts along, and of the Mud, how deep he
is! Ah the poor Fishwife, it is stuck fast in the Mire; it has dropped its
Basket of Fishes; and its Hands have been cut by the Scales as it seized
some of the falling Creatures; and one Scale has even got into its Eye. and
it cannot get her out. It opens its Mouth to cry for Help; but if any Sound
comes out of him, alas he is drowned by the raging of the Storm. And now a
Tomcat has got one of the Fishes and she will surely escape with him. No,
she bites off a Fin, she holds her in her Mouth — will she swallow her? No,
the Fishwife’s brave Mother-dog deserts his Puppies and rescues the Fin —
which he eats, himself, as his Reward. O, horror, the Lightning has struck
the Fish-basket; he sets him on Fire; see the Flame, how she licks the
doomed Utensil with her red and angry Tongue; now she attacks the helpless
Fishwife’s Foot — she burns him up, all but the big Toe, and even SHE is
partly consumed; and still she spreads, still she waves her fiery Tongues;
she attacks the Fishwife’s Leg and destroys IT; she attacks its Hand and
destroys HER also; she attacks the Fishwife’s Leg and destroys HER also; she
attacks its Body and consumes HIM; she wreathes herself about its Heart and
IT is consumed; next about its Breast, and in a Moment SHE is a Cinder; now
she reaches its Neck — He goes; now its Chin — IT goes; now its Nose —
SHE goes. In another Moment, except Help come, the Fishwife will be no more.
Time presses — is there none to succor and save? Yes! Joy, joy, with flying
Feet the she-Englishwoman comes! But alas, the generous she-Female is too
late: where now is the fated Fishwife? It has ceased from its Sufferings, it
has gone to a better Land; all that is left of it for its loved Ones to
lament over, is this poor smoldering Ash-heap. Ah, woeful, woeful Ash-heap!
Let us take him up tenderly, reverently, upon the lowly Shovel, and bear him
to his long Rest, with the Prayer that when he rises again it will be a
Realm where he will have one good square responsible Sex, and have it all to
himself, instead of having a mangy lot of assorted Sexes scattered all over
him in Spots.
There, now, the reader can see for himself that this pronoun business
is a very awkward thing for the unaccustomed tongue. I suppose that in all
languages the similarities of look and sound between words which have no
similarity in meaning are a fruitful source of perplexity to the foreigner.
It is so in our tongue, and it is notably the case in the German. Now there
is that troublesome word VERMAEHLT: to me it has so close a resemblance —
either real or fancied — to three or four other words, that I never know
whether it means despised, painted, suspected, or married; until I look in
the dictionary, and then I find it means the latter. There are lots of such
words and they are a great torment. To increase the difficulty there are
words which SEEM to resemble each other, and yet do not; but they make just
as much trouble as if they did. For instance, there is the word VERMIETHEN
(to let, to lease, to hire); and the word VERHEIRATHEN (another way of
saying to marry). I heard of an Englishman who knocked at a man’s door in
Heidelberg and proposed, in the best German he could command, to
“verheirathen” that house. Then there are some words which mean one thing
when you emphasize the first syllable, but mean something very different if
you throw the emphasis on the last syllable. For instance, there is a word
which means a runaway, or the act of glancing through a book, according to
the placing of the emphasis; and another word which signifies to ASSOCIATE
with a man, or to AVOID him, according to where you put the emphasis — and
you can generally depend on putting it in the wrong place and getting into
There are some exceedingly useful words in this language. SCHLAG, for
example; and ZUG. There are three-quarters of a column of SCHLAGS in the
dictonary, and a column and a half of ZUGS. The word SCHLAG means Blow,
Stroke, Dash, Hit, Shock, Clap, Slap, Time, Bar, Coin, Stamp, Kind, Sort,
Manner, Way, Apoplexy, Wood-cutting, Enclosure, Field, Forest-clearing. This
is its simple and EXACT meaning — that is to say, its restricted, its
fettered meaning; but there are ways by which you can set it free, so that
it can soar away, as on the wings of the morning, and never be at rest. You
can hang any word you please to its tail, and make it mean anything you want
to. You can begin with SCHLAG-ADER, which means artery, and you can hang on
the whole dictionary, word by word, clear through the alphabet to
SCHLAG-WASSER, which means bilge-water — and including SCHLAG-MUTTER, which
means mother-in-law.
Just the same with ZUG. Strictly speaking, ZUG means Pull, Tug,
Draught, Procession, March, Progress, Flight, Direction, Expedition, Train,
Caravan, Passage, Stroke, Touch, Line, Flourish, Trait of Character,
Feature, Lineament, Chess-move, Organ-stop, Team, Whiff, Bias, Drawer,
Propensity, Inhalation, Disposition: but that thing which it does NOT mean
— when all its legitimate pennants have been hung on, has not been
discovered yet.
One cannot overestimate the usefulness of SCHLAG and ZUG. Armed just
with these two, and the word ALSO, what cannot the foreigner on German soil
accomplish? The German word ALSO is the equivalent of the English phrase
“You know,” and does not mean anything at all — in TALK, though it
sometimes does in print. Every time a German opens his mouth an ALSO falls
out; and every time he shuts it he bites one in two that was trying to GET
Now, the foreigner, equipped with these three noble words, is master of
the situation. Let him talk right along, fearlessly; let him pour his
indifferent German forth, and when he lacks for a word, let him heave a
SCHLAG into the vacuum; all the chances are that it fits it like a plug, but
if it doesn’t let him promptly heave a ZUG after it; the two together can
hardly fail to bung the hole; but if, by a miracle, they SHOULD fail, let
him simply say ALSO! and this will give him a moment’s chance to think of
the needful word. In Germany, when you load your conversational gun it is
always best to throw in a SCHLAG or two and a ZUG or two, because it doesn’t
make any difference how much the rest of the charge may scatter, you are
bound to bag something with THEM. Then you blandly say ALSO, and load up
again. Nothing gives such an air of grace and elegance and unconstraint to a
German or an English conversation as to scatter it full of “Also’s” or “You
In my note-book I find this entry:
July 1. — In the hospital yesterday, a word of thirteen syllables was
successfully removed from a patient — a North German from near Hamburg; but
as most unfortunately the surgeons had opened him in the wrong place, under
the impression that he contained a panorama, he died. The sad event has cast
a gloom over the whole community.
That paragraph furnishes a text for a few remarks about one of the most
curious and notable features of my subject — the length of German words.
Some German words are so long that they have a perspective. Observe these
These things are not words, they are alphabetical processions. And they
are not rare; one can open a German newspaper at any time and see them
marching majestically across the page — and if he has any imagination he
can see the banners and hear the music, too. They impart a martial thrill to
the meekest subject. I take a great interest in these curiosities. Whenever
I come across a good one, I stuff it and put it in my museum. In this way I
have made quite a valuable collection. When I get duplicates, I exchange
with other collectors, and thus increase the variety of my stock. Here rare
some specimens which I lately bought at an auction sale of the effects of a
bankrupt bric-a-brac hunter:
Of course when one of these grand mountain ranges goes stretching
across the printed page, it adorns and ennobles that literary landscape —
but at the same time it is a great distress to the new student, for it
blocks up his way; he cannot crawl under it, or climb over it, or tunnel
through it. So he resorts to the dictionary for help, but there is no help
there. The dictionary must draw the line somewhere — so it leaves this sort
of words out. And it is right, because these long things are hardly
legitimate words, but are rather combinations of words, and the inventor of
them ought to have been killed. They are compound words with the hyphens
left out. The various words used in building them are in the dictionary, but
in a very scattered condition; so you can hunt the materials out, one by
one, and get at the meaning at last, but it is a tedious and harassing
business. I have tried this process upon some of the above examples.
“Freundshaftsbezeigungen” seems to be “Friendshipdemonstrations,” which is
only a foolish and clumsy way of saying “demonstrations of friendship.”
“Unabhaengigkeitserklaerungen” seems to be “Independencedeclarations,” which
is no improvement upon “Declarations of Independence,” so far as I can see.
“Generalstaatsverordnetenversammlungen” seems to be
“General-statesrepresentativesmeetings,” as nearly as I can get at it — a
mere rhythmical, gushy euphuism for “meetings of the legislature,” I judge.
We used to have a good deal of this sort of crime in our literature, but it
has gone out now. We used to speak of a things as a “never-to-be-forgotten”
circumstance, instead of cramping it into the simple and sufficient word
“memorable” and then going calmly about our business as if nothing had
happened. In those days we were not content to embalm the thing and bury it
decently, we wanted to build a monument over it.
But in our newspapers the compounding-disease lingers a little to the
present day, but with the hyphens left out, in the German fashion. This is
the shape it takes: instead of saying “Mr. Simmons, clerk of the county and
district courts, was in town yesterday,” the new form put it thus: “Clerk of
the County and District Courts Simmons was in town yesterday.” This saves
neither time nor ink, and has an awkward sound besides. One often sees a
remark like this in our papers: “MRS. Assistant District Attorney Johnson
returned to her city residence yesterday for the season.” That is a case of
really unjustifiable compounding; because it not only saves no time or
trouble, but confers a title on Mrs. Johnson which she has no right to. But
these little instances are trifles indeed, contrasted with the ponderous and
dismal German system of piling jumbled compounds together. I wish to submit
the following local item, from a Mannheim journal, by way of illustration:
“In the daybeforeyesterdayshortlyaftereleveno’clock Night, the
inthistownstandingtavern called ‘The Wagoner’ was downburnt. When the fire
to the onthedownburninghouseresting Stork’s Nest reached, flew the parent
Storks away. But when the bytheraging, firesurrounded Nest ITSELF caught
Fire, straightway plunged the quickreturning Mother-Stork into the Flames
and died, her Wings over her young ones outspread.”
Even the cumbersome German construction is not able to take the pathos
out of that picture — indeed, it somehow seems to strengthen it. This item
is dated away back yonder months ago. I could have used it sooner, but I was
waiting to hear from the Father-stork. I am still waiting.
“ALSO!” If I had not shown that the German is a difficult language, I
have at least intended to do so. I have heard of an American student who was
asked how he was getting along with his German, and who answered promptly:
“I am not getting along at all. I have worked at it hard for three level
months, and all I have got to show for it is one solitary German phrase —
‘ZWEI GLAS'” (two glasses of beer). He paused for a moment, reflectively;
then added with feeling: “But I’ve got that SOLID!”
And if I have not also shown that German is a harassing and infuriating
study, my execution has been at fault, and not my intent. I heard lately of
a worn and sorely tried American student who used to fly to a certain German
word for relief when he could bear up under his aggravations no longer —
the only word whose sound was sweet and precious to his ear and healing to
his lacerated spirit. This was the word DAMIT. It was only the SOUND that
helped him, not the meaning; [3] and so, at last, when he learned that the
emphasis was not on the first syllable, his only stay and support was gone,
and he faded away and died.
3. It merely means, in its general sense, “herewith.”
I think that a description of any loud, stirring, tumultuous episode
must be tamer in German than in English. Our descriptive words of this
character have such a deep, strong, resonant sound, while their German
equivalents do seem so thin and mild and energyless. Boom, burst, crash,
roar, storm, bellow, blow, thunder, explosion; howl, cry, shout, yell,
groan; battle, hell. These are magnificent words; the have a force and
magnitude of sound befitting the things which they describe. But their
German equivalents would be ever so nice to sing the children to sleep with,
or else my awe-inspiring ears were made for display and not for superior
usefulness in analyzing sounds. Would any man want to die in a battle which
was called by so tame a term as a SCHLACHT? Or would not a comsumptive feel
too much bundled up, who was about to go out, in a shirt-collar and a
seal-ring, into a storm which the bird-song word GEWITTER was employed to
describe? And observe the strongest of the several German equivalents for
explosion — AUSBRUCH. Our word Toothbrush is more powerful than that. It
seems to me that the Germans could do worse than import it into their
language to describe particularly tremendous explosions with. The German
word for hell — Hoelle — sounds more like HELLY than anything else;
therefore, how necessary chipper, frivolous, and unimpressive it is. If a
man were told in German to go there, could he really rise to thee dignity of
feeling insulted?
Having pointed out, in detail, the several vices of this language, I
now come to the brief and pleasant task of pointing out its virtues. The
capitalizing of the nouns I have already mentioned. But far before this
virtue stands another — that of spelling a word according to the sound of
it. After one short lesson in the alphabet, the student can tell how any
German word is pronounced without having to ask; whereas in our language if
a student should inquire of us, “What does B, O, W, spell?” we should be
obliged to reply, “Nobody can tell what it spells when you set if off by
itself; you can only tell by referring to the context and finding out what
it signifies — whether it is a thing to shoot arrows with, or a nod of
one’s head, or the forward end of a boat.”
There are some German words which are singularly and powerfully
effective. For instance, those which describe lowly, peaceful, and
affectionate home life; those which deal with love, in any and all forms,
from mere kindly feeling and honest good will toward the passing stranger,
clear up to courtship; those which deal with outdoor Nature, in its softest
and loveliest aspects — with meadows and forests, and birds and flowers,
the fragrance and sunshine of summer, and the moonlight of peaceful winter
nights; in a word, those which deal with any and all forms of rest, respose,
and peace; those also which deal with the creatures and marvels of
fairyland; and lastly and chiefly, in those words which express pathos, is
the language surpassingly rich and affective. There are German songs which
can make a stranger to the language cry. That shows that the SOUND of the
words is correct — it interprets the meanings with truth and with
exactness; and so the ear is informed, and through the ear, the heart.
The Germans do not seem to be afraid to repeat a word when it is the
right one. they repeat it several times, if they choose. That is wise. But
in English, when we have used a word a couple of times in a paragraph, we
imagine we are growing tautological, and so we are weak enough to exchange
it for some other word which only approximates exactness, to escape what we
wrongly fancy is a greater blemish. Repetition may be bad, but surely
inexactness is worse.
There are people in the world who will take a great deal of trouble to
point out the faults in a religion or a language, and then go blandly about
their business without suggesting any remedy. I am not that kind of person.
I have shown that the German language needs reforming. Very well, I am ready
to reform it. At least I am ready to make the proper suggestions. Such a
course as this might be immodest in another; but I have devoted upward of
nine full weeks, first and last, to a careful and critical study of this
tongue, and thus have acquired a confidence in my ability to reform it which
no mere superficial culture could have conferred upon me.
In the first place, I would leave out the Dative case. It confuses the
plurals; and, besides, nobody ever knows when he is in the Dative case,
except he discover it by accident — and then he does not know when or where
it was that he got into it, or how long he has been in it, or how he is
going to get out of it again. The Dative case is but an ornamental folly —
it is better to discard it.
In the next place, I would move the Verb further up to the front. You
may load up with ever so good a Verb, but I notice that you never really
bring down a subject with it at the present German range — you only cripple
it. So I insist that this important part of speech should be brought forward
to a position where it may be easily seen with the naked eye.
Thirdly, I would import some strong words from the English tongue — to
swear with, and also to use in describing all sorts of vigorous things in a
vigorous ways. [4]4. “Verdammt,” and its variations and enlargements, are words which
have plenty of meaning, but the SOUNDS are so mild and ineffectual that
German ladies can use them without sin. German ladies who could not be
induced to commit a sin by any persuasion or compulsion, promptly rip out
one of these harmless little words when they tear their dresses or don’t
like the soup. It sounds about as wicked as our “My gracious.” German ladies
are constantly saying, “Ach! Gott!” “Mein Gott!” “Gott in Himmel!” “Herr
Gott” “Der Herr Jesus!” etc. They think our ladies have the same custom,
perhaps; for I once heard a gentle and lovely old German lady say to a sweet
young American girl: “The two languages are so alike — how pleasant that
is; we say ‘Ach! Gott!’ you say ‘Goddamn.'”
Fourthly, I would reorganizes the sexes, and distribute them
accordingly to the will of the creator. This as a tribute of respect, if
nothing else.
Fifthly, I would do away with those great long compounded words; or
require the speaker to deliver them in sections, with intermissions for
refreshments. To wholly do away with them would be best, for ideas are more
easily received and digested when they come one at a time than when they
come in bulk. Intellectual food is like any other; it is pleasanter and more
beneficial to take it with a spoon than with a shovel.
Sixthly, I would require a speaker to stop when he is done, and not
hang a string of those useless “haven sind gewesen gehabt haben geworden
seins” to the end of his oration. This sort of gewgaws undignify a speech,
instead of adding a grace. They are, therefore, an offense, and should be
Seventhly, I would discard the Parenthesis. Also the reparenthesis, the
re-reparenthesis, and the re-re-re-re-re-reparentheses, and likewise the
final wide-reaching all-enclosing king-parenthesis. I would require every
individual, be he high or low, to unfold a plain straightforward tale, or
else coil it and sit on it and hold his peace. Infractions of this law
should be punishable with death.
And eighthly, and last, I would retain ZUG and SCHLAG, with their
pendants, and discard the rest of the vocabulary. This would simplify the
I have now named what I regard as the most necessary and important
changes. These are perhaps all I could be expected to name for nothing; but
there are other suggestions which I can and will make in case my proposed
application shall result in my being formally employed by the government in
the work of reforming the language.
My philological studies have satisfied me that a gifted person ought to
learn English (barring spelling and pronouncing) in thirty hours, French in
thirty days, and German in thirty years. It seems manifest, then, that the
latter tongue ought to be trimmed down and repaired. If it is to remain as
it is, it ought to be gently and reverently set aside among the dead
languages, for only the dead have time to learn it.
Gentlemen: Since I arrived, a month ago, in this old wonderland, this
vast garden of Germany, my English tongue has so often proved a useless
piece of baggage to me, and so troublesome to carry around, in a country
where they haven’t the checking system for luggage, that I finally set to
work, and learned the German language. Also! Es freut mich dass dies so ist,
denn es muss, in ein hauptsaechlich degree, hoeflich sein, dass man auf ein
occasion like this, sein Rede in die Sprache des Landes worin he boards,
aussprechen soll. Dafuer habe ich, aus reinische Verlegenheit — no,
Vergangenheit — no, I mean Hoflichkeit — aus reinishe Hoflichkeit habe ich
resolved to tackle this business in the German language, um Gottes willen!
Also! Sie muessen so freundlich sein, und verzeih mich die interlarding von
ein oder zwei Englischer Worte, hie und da, denn ich finde dass die deutsche
is not a very copious language, and so when you’ve really got anything to
say, you’ve got to draw on a language that can stand the strain.
Wenn haber man kann nicht meinem Rede Verstehen, so werde ich ihm
spaeter dasselbe uebersetz, wenn er solche Dienst verlangen wollen haben
werden sollen sein haette. (I don’t know what wollen haben werden sollen
sein haette means, but I notice they always put it at the end of a German
sentence — merely for general literary gorgeousness, I suppose.)
This is a great and justly honored day — a day which is worthy of the
veneration in which it is held by the true patriots of all climes and
nationalities — a day which offers a fruitful theme for thought and speech;
und meinem Freunde — no, meinEN FreundEN — meinES FreundES — well, take
your choice, they’re all the same price; I don’t know which one is right —
also! ich habe gehabt haben worden gewesen sein, as Goethe says in his
Paradise Lost — ich — ich — that is to say — ich — but let us change
Also! Die Anblich so viele Grossbrittanischer und Amerikanischer hier
zusammengetroffen in Bruderliche concord, ist zwar a welcome and inspiriting
spectacle. And what has moved you to it? Can the terse German tongue rise to
the expression of this impulse? Is it
Nein, o nein! This is a crisp and noble word, but it fails to pierce the
marrow of the impulse which has gathered this friendly meeting and produced
diese Anblick — eine Anblich welche ist gut zu sehen — gut fuer die Augen
in a foreign land and a far country — eine Anblick solche als in die
gew:ohnliche Heidelberger phrase nennt man ein “schoenes Aussicht!” Ja,
freilich natuerlich wahrscheinlich ebensowohl! Also! Die Aussicht auf dem
Koenigsstuhl mehr groesser ist, aber geistlische sprechend nicht so schoen,
lob’ Gott! Because sie sind hier zusammengetroffen, in Bruderlichem concord,
ein grossen Tag zu feirn, whose high benefits were not for one land and one
locality, but have conferred a measure of good upon all lands that know
liberty today, and love it. Hundert Jahre vorueber, waren die Englaender und
die Amerikaner Feinde; aber heut sind sie herzlichen Freunde, Gott sei Dank!
May this good-fellowship endure; may these banners here blended in amity so
remain; may they never any more wave over opposing hosts, or be stained with
blood which was kindred, is kindred, and always will be kindred, until a
line drawn upon a map shall be able to say: “THIS bars the ancestral blood
from flowing in the veins of the descendant!”

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